The Azores Rallye is living up to its hugely demanding reputation with mud, wind and rain making for an extremely tough start to round five of the FIA European Rally Championship.

Graminhais, Tronqueira and Lagoa de São Brás were all struck by challenging conditions leading to several leading contenders hitting trouble on the 55th running of what remains one of the most spectacular rallies in the world.

Opening the road, ERC2 championship leader Dmitry Feofanov was the first to encounter the unseasonable weather, which is in complete contrast to the sunshine and high temperatures that have formed a backdrop to the rally’s build-up.

After Feofanov narrowly avoided picking up a puncture on SS1, a spin on SS2 left his Suzuki Swift Rally2 Kit with a damaged exhaust and a dramatic drop-off in power.

But Feofanov was far more fortunate than a number of drivers running behind him on the opening loop of leg one, which local hero Ricardo Moura (ARC Sport Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo) completed with an advantage of 27.8s over Dani Sordo’s Team MRF Tyres-entered Hyundai i20 R5, with Efrén Llarena (Rallye Team Spain Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo), Andreas Mikkelsen (Toksport WRT Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo) and Erik Cais (Yacco ACCR Team Ford Fiesta Rally2) third, fourth and fifth respectively.

ERC champion Alexey Lukyanuk (Citroën C3 Rally2) was forced to stop and change a damaged tyre on SS1 and completed SS3 with significant damage to the front of his Saintéloc Junior Team entry. Andreas Mikkelsen reported “crawling” for some five kilometres after the windscreen wipers failed on his Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo on SS2, with the ERC points leader reporting it was “impossible to drive”.

Rachele Somaschini retired after SS1 when her Citroën C3 Rally2’s windscreen wipers failed.

Pedro Antunes, competing in the ERC in a Rally2 car for the first time, crashed his Play Racing Citroën on the first stage

Front-left driveshaft failure accounted for Azorean championship leader Ruben Rodrigues on the same run.

Nil Solans crashed on SS1, while Norbert Herczig went off kilometres from the start of the stage and got stuck in his Škoda Rally Team Hungaria entry.

Hyundai Rally Team Italia’s Umberto Scandola briefly left the road on SS1 but recovered – a fate he also suffered on SS3 – although Adrian Chwietczuk was not so lucky, the Polish driver crashing out on SS2.

Aloísio Monteiro missed a junction on SS1 and also damaged the right side of his Škoda Fabia Rallly2 but remains in contention for The Racing Factory.

Joan Vinyes’ Suzuki Motor Ibérica entry has been down on power, but it’s been a different story for team-mate Javier Pardo, who leads ERC2 by a comfortable margin.

Igor Widłak rolled his Ford Fiesta Rally3 into retirement 200 metres from the start of SS2.

Intercom and clutch issues have hampered ERC3 contender Jean-Baptiste Franceschi, leaving class rival Pep Bassas comfortably clear in his Rallye Team Spain-entered Peugeot 208 Rallly4 after SS2. Franceschi’s Toksport WRT team-mate Ola Jr Nore was a non-starter in his identical Renault Clio Rally4.

ERC newcomer Benito Guerra reported hitting a tree with the right-rear of his Škoda on SS3, Lagoa de São Brás where the dramatic morning loop concluded with a crash for Yoann Bonato prior to a service halt in Ponta Delgada’s Portas do Mar. The Frenchman was sixth after two stages but joins a growing list of retirements.